THE BLOG
06/30/2016 03:36 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2017

New Labor Law Has A Hidden Benefit For Working Moms

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The Department of Labor announced last month that it will extend overtime protections to millions of additional workers, beginning in December. As many are celebrating the impact these new overtime rules will have on their pay, few have recognized that the rules come with a hidden benefit for mothers: a right to break time and a private (non-bathroom) space to pump breast milk for their babies.

Wondering what breastfeeding has to do with overtime? You're not alone.

Here's some background: The 2010 Affordable Care Act included a provision requiring employers to accommodate the needs of mothers to pump breast milk at work. But instead of enshrining this requirement in a stand-alone law, the Affordable Care Act added the breastfeeding provisions to an existing, well-known workplace law - the Fair Labor Standards Act. As a result, employees who are eligible for overtime under federal law are also entitled to breaks and a private place to pump.

Currently, this group includes most hourly workers as well as most salaried workers earning less than $23,660 a year. The new rules extend overtime--and lactation--protections to millions more employees who earn less than $47,476 annually. The Economic Policy Institute found that 12.5 million workers will be impacted by this expansion. We estimate that over 3 million of these newly-covered workers will be women of childbearing age.

The Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision requires employers to provide reasonable breaks to pump breast milk for one year after giving birth. It also requires employers to provide a space that can be used to pump that is shielded from view and free from intrusion. The law explicitly states that this space cannot be a bathroom. This is welcome news for moms out there nervously pumping with their back propped against a closet door or while sitting on the only "seat" available in a bathroom stall. Remember, breast milk is food.

Despite federal and state laws that require accommodations, the struggle to obtain a functional lactation space, and the time to use it, is a common one. A recent study from the University of Minnesota found that three out of every five American moms report that they do not have access to both space and breaks.

One such mother, Aida Lico, filed a lawsuit in New York claiming that her employer violated the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law. When Lico returned from maternity leave to her position as a bank teller, her boss told her that she could pump just twice a day, and only in the restroom. When Lico objected, she was told to use the mailroom instead, only to find that the mailroom door didn't lock. She was then told to use the safe-deposit box room, but had to compete with customers for time in the room.

Lico's lawsuit also alleges that her supervisor didn't allow her to take lactation breaks for up to six hours at a time. As a result of the delay in pumping, Lico's milk supply was reduced, and she suffered from painful breast engorgement and infection, fever, chills, and embarrassing leakage in front of colleagues and customers. When she started to nurse her child at home instead of pumping in these conditions, Lico was fired.

Employers who don't follow the laws that require lactation accommodations face risks. The Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law issued a report last month finding that employment discrimination lawsuits filed by nursing moms have increased by 800% over the last decade.

Avoiding lawsuits should be reason enough to provide accommodations, but wise employers will provide lactation breaks and space for other reasons too. Providing accommodations ensures that employees are able to focus on their work instead of the pain that results from waiting too long to pump. It also makes for happier, more productive and more loyal employees, which is always good for a company's bottom line.

Employers also stand to gain from the health benefits of breastfeeding. Physicians encourage nursing for at least a year because it is linked to less sickness and hospitalization for infants, as well as faster recovery and long-term benefits like reduced cancer risk for mothers. All of this translates into lower healthcare costs and reduced absenteeism for employers. Solutions for providing breastfeeding accommodations have been identified in every industry, and are temporary and typically low-cost.

The Break Time for Nursing Mothers rule enacted as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act was one of the most important federal reforms to help working mothers in years, but most American women were not covered by it. The Department of Labor's new rules expanding overtime protections to millions of additional employees give many previously unprotected women more than a raise.